This month’s On That Note! looks at the role of the music director, and the unique challenges facing Helen Hayes Award recipient William Hubbard as he delved into a world that encompasses the Gullah communities of the southern coast, the field hollers sung on plantations, and the spirit rousing hymns of the praise houses. Experience this rich musical heritage yourself in Black Pearl Sings!, at MetroStage through May 29.
For music director William Hubbard, exploring the unique sounds of Black Pearl Sings! brought him back to his own childhood. “I am familiar first-hand with this archaic sound,” he points out, describing a score that draws on traditions of Gullah, field hollers, and praise houses. “I grew up in a church that sang in that style,” he says. “People weren’t reading the notes in the hymn book. They were singing whatever came up out of their hearts.”
Black Pearl Sings! tells the story of a Library of Congress musicologist and an imprisoned African American woman with a distinct musical gift – and a story. Based loosely on the real-life meeting of folklorist John Lomax and singer/guitarist Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, the show features more than 20 folk songs and spirituals performed by actors Roz White and Teresa Castracane.
Hubbard explored similar musical genres for his work on Crowns at Arena Stage, a production for which he won the Helen Hayes Award. “It’s important to understand the African influence upon American music,” he says. “Most African music is based on the pentatonic scale, so when it’s forced into a Eurocentric sound, you get bends in the notes. That’s how we get the blues.”
He acknowledges that many people don’t really know what a music director does, even on a more conventional, Broadway-style musical. “We teach the vocals,” he says simply. “We supervise the band. We make sure that everything is well rehearsed and well prepared.” Unlike many music directors, Hubbard is willing to transpose music into keys that fit an actor’s range. “I like to be sure that the vocalists are comfortable,” he says. “The wear and tear on people’s voices when they have an eight-show week can be hard. I want to make sure they carry that out carefully. My job is to make sure that everyone’s at their best.”
Whatever the project, research is his first step. “It’s a lot of listening to the period and to the genres that are involved,” he says. “For Black Pearl Sings! I wanted to make sure I didn’t hear any modern sensibilities in the performance. There are certain idiosyncrasies that we’re used to now that they didn’t use then. It was more simple. You don’t want to hear any Beyoncé in this type of singing.”
Hubbard explains that Gullah communities in Georgia and South Carolina remained isolated from European traditions and were thus able to maintain their musical heritage. “Even to this day there’s a rhythmic clap that they use,” he explains. “They sing almost any hymn over that same rhythmic value.” To demonstrate, he begins to beat out a rhythm. “It’s very African. You can sing a hymn like ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’ but you put it over a beat like this and it’s something different.”
Black Pearl Sings! offers a unique opportunity for audiences. “You’ll find an honesty and an intimacy because most of it is sung a cappella,” Hubbard explains. “The character of [musicologist] Susannah Mullally uses an autoharp but everything else is generated by a stomp or a clap, or using a desk as a base drum. You come away with a close encounter of how these women influence each other, not only in the story but in the music. They go through a journey with their relationship, and they also go through a journey discovering each other’s music.”